SNP will nationalise the Forth Bridge, but privatise its maintenance

The Scottish Government’s hostility to private contractors providing services in the NHS in England (there are already private firms working in the Scottish NHS, but this does not seem to arouse comment) does not extent to other parts of the public realm.

Shortly before Christmas Amey LG Ltd was awarded a contract to maintain the current Forth Road Bridge and the new bridge, the £1.6 billion Queensferry Crossing, now being built alongside it. The deal, worth £40-60 million over five years, will start in June and could be extended to ten years.

Until now maintaining the bridge has been the responsibility of FETA, the Forth Estuary Transport Authority. Approximately 70 staff, who are employed in bridge maintenance, traffic operations and administration, will transfer to Amey when the contract starts.

FETA is an unusual public body. It is not under the control of the Scottish or UK governments, but owned and run by three local authorities, the City of Edinburgh, Fife and Perth and Kinross. They raised the £20 million necessary to build the bridge in 1964 and have owned and managed it for 50 years, although since the abolition of tolls in 2008 they have been dependent on Government grants to finance maintenance work.

In 2013 the Scottish Parliament passed an Act, which will dissolve FETA, take the bridge into Scottish Government ownership and privatise the care and maintenance of it. The councils are not over-happy, since it represents another loss of local accountability and control to the central government, following the much larger losses of influence over the police and fire services, both of which are now centralised. But they don’t have much choice. The old existing bridge represents a liability they cannot afford without Scottish Government funding (remember, council tax has been frozen for seven years).

FETA has not done a bad job considering the age of the bridge (it put in place successful remedial work, when the corrosion of the suspension cables was discovered), so it is not wholly evident why it has been necessary to abolish the company. Audit Scotland reports seem to indicate that its performance was satisfactory, the minister has praised the company and all the staff are being transferred. The new company will not have any better employees.

So why should we assume it will represent better value for money? What is the evidence for thinking that Amey will do better than FETA – beyond the ideological belief that private always trumps public?

The task of judging whether they do perform will fall to – not Audit Scotland, a public watchdog, which used to monitor FETA – but to another private company. It is PAG, the Performance & Audit Group, a consortium of the accountants PriceWaterhouse, URS, a consultancy now owned in the US, and TRL, which was once the Transport Research Laboratory, but was privatised by the UK Government in 1996.

PAG also monitors and reports on the performance of the management and maintenance of Scotland’s trunk road network, the upkeep of which has been privatised. Does all of this result in better maintenance of Scotland’s transport systems? We can hope so, but on the evidence so far it is difficult to judge.